The dry well of promises

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Anumeha Yadav travels to rajasthan to evaluate the UPA government’s flagship rural employment scheme

Hard labour Three years of drought in Devdungri district in Rajasthan has left women with very few means of livelihood
Photo: ANUMEHA YADAV

On May 17, 2010, the United Progressive alliance government completed a year into its second term. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who addressed a press conference — his second in six years at the helm — on the occassion talked expectedly on corruption, Naxalism, inflation and Congress party affairs. To most, it was obvious that the one feather in the government’s cap is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). A flagship innovation that was legislated on august 25, 2005, the scheme guarantees adult citizens across rural India 100 days of employment at legally stipulated minimum wages. The scheme was initially called the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (NREGS) and was renamed by the UPA in its second term on October 2, 2009.

The sustained place of prominence accorded to MGNREGS on the UPA’s report card is however at variance with the scheme’s implementation. In the five years of the scheme, stories of corruption and mismanagement of funds abound — Rajasthan being a classic example. In 2009, the state claimed a whopping 19 percent — the highest share — of MGNREGS funds from the Centre. The state is also struggling to check massive corruption and to pay wages on time. Additionally, there is a marked shortage of staff to administer work under the scheme.

For several weeks now, Cheeman Singh (50), a farmer living in Devdungri village in Rajasthan has been asking his teenaged son who carries a cell phone if there has been confirmation of his job as a house-help in Gujarat. Singh is one of several rural poor who have had no alternative but to migrate for work to other states, several months a year because of the drought in the area. When rains failed for three successive years, Singh (or Cheemanba as he is addressed) and his wife Meera were among the first to undertake a 36-hour train journey to Karnataka to work at a brick kiln in 2004. Last year was the first in several years that both were employed in their own village — thanks to MGNREGS. Cheemanba’s family was among the 1.36 lakh households that worked under MGNREGS in Rajsamand district in Rajasthan in 2009. now, however, Cheemanba says he must look for work in the neighbouring state because the scheme does not pay on time nor does it reward his labour.

MGNREGS rules say that workers must be paid within 15 days of finishing each phase of work at the wage rate set by the state government. Cheemanba however got paid for work done in April only in November that year, a seven-month wait that exhausted his savings. and the wages were a disappointing Rs 7,973 — far less than the Rs 10,000 he had calculated he would earn working 100 days at the wage rate of Rs 100 per day.

 

Concrete A wall of accounts in Ajmer’s Bijapur village serves as a last-ditch attempt to check corruption under MGNREGS there
Photo: VIJAY PANDEY

Additionally, full wages were not paid because of shortage of skilled personnel who can administer, measure and evaluate the work done. at every work-site, a ‘mate’, or site supervisor, assigns tasks and measures work done by each worker. In many instances, ‘mates’, usually residents of the village who have studied till class x, struggle to do their job. “They do not estimate wages based on the amount and difficulty of work done, such as whether the soil was hard or soft, etc. They are not able to convert inches and feet into one unit while adding, multiplying, etc.”, says Sukh Lal, one of 200 ‘mate-trainers’ appointed by the state government. at a two-day training session organised at Deogarh block in Rajsamand district where a group of 23 men and 19 women are being trained, when Lal assigns a problem of calculating wages based on number of inches of earth dug, one trainee calculates the wage to be Rs 90 while another concludes it would be Rs 70, a difference that is not small for those labouring at the work sites.

Wages are paid once the Junior Engineer, usually a civil engineer, evaluates what the ‘mates’ have recorded. Junior Engineers say they are over-worked. “The rules say each engineer is responsible for five panchayats, I am looking after 19. There is no way I can be present at the 120 work sites in these 19 panchayats,” rues amit Pratap Singh, a Junior Engineer in Deogarh block. “So, we have no choice but to approve what ‘mates’ write arbitrarily,” he says.

MGNREGS places no limits on the amount of funds village councils can plan and claim for works in the village. Elected representatives, such as the sarpanch (village head) and gram sewak (secretary), have, in many instances, claim enormous funds for paying wages and procuring material when work has either not been done, or is of poor quality. In ajmer district, a government inquiry in March this year in Malaton ki Ber panchayat revealed discrepancies of over Rs 1.31 crore in its accounts since april 2009.

A government inquiry in march this year revealed discrepancies of  Rs 1.31 crore in accounts

THE INSIDIOUS effect of corruption in MGNREGS plays itself out on other institutions and democratic processes. “Those contesting panchayat elections spend lakhs of rupees while canvassing. Once elected, they recover money by stealing funds under MGNREGS,” claims Mohan Singh, a retired army personnel who contested elections in Malaton ki Ber in ajmer. — the site of the most recent inquiry. Singh claims that the winning candidate had offered him Rs 20 lakh to not contest.

Between last april and now, Chauhan who had got elected for a second term in 2009, demanded and received over Rs 2.68 crore from the state for work executed under MGNREGS. an amount of Rs 1.31 crore could not be accounted for when an audit was done in March. an FIR has been registered against Chauhan.

Though MGNREGS has provisions to check corruption, the existence of political will and administrative capacity to implement them is however debatable.

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